Director of Photography:
Running time: 121 minutes
Original title: Die Wonderwerker
Feelings that remain unspoken can turn into a festering mess. The Miracle Worker, about a peculiar man who turns up on a farm in the north-eastern part of South Africa at the turn of the 20th century, at that time still a British colony, shows how tension can become a fissure when even the gentlest bit of pressure is applied.
The farm is “Rietfontein”, the year 1908, and acclaimed Afrikaans poet Eugène Marais pulls up at the front door of the farmhouse, out of breath and very thirsty, his piercing grey-blue eyes hauntingly asking the woman of the house, Tamaria (or often just Maria) van Rooyen for some water. As usual, she is a little nosy, but when he insists, she turns into a lovely hostess, running to get the water herself and offering him a bed to sweat out what he says is malaria. In fact, it is not malaria, and he ultimately stays much longer than just the night.
Maria’s husband, Gys, is the head of the household by virtue of his gender, but it is clear from the start that Maria runs everything in the house and even admits that Gys doesn’t do anything without her say-so. However, she is far from being in control, and while she has issues of her own, she also turns a blind eye to her son Adriaan’s continual sexual harassment of their adopted 19-year-old Jane. When Gys tells her Adriaan is too horny, she retorts with, “At least he has some balls.”
In that single brief exchange a great deal of character is revealed, as Maria not only indicates that Gys should pay more attention to her, but also that her own desire for affection has blinded her to the suffering inflicted on a girl in her care, under her roof, by her own son.
Maria is by far the most interesting character in the film, despite its focus purportedly being elsewhere: The title refers to the wily Marais, whose presence on the farm leads to all kinds of bizarre encounters with wildlife. Maria is played with grace and determination by actress Elize Cawood, who seems to simply slide into the role, her dialogue never coming across as contrived or affected. The same can be said of Marius Weyers, who plays Gys, although the character is unfortunately much less complex. As a matter of interest, I’ll note that Cawood and Weyers — well-known figures in the South African film and television industry for more than three decades — also appeared as husband and wife in The Fourth Reich.
The Miracle Worker is different from the Ross Devenish’s 1977 film The Guest, a film whose scarce availability stands in direct contrast to its acclaim as perhaps one of the best South African films ever made, in that the struggle with addiction — frighteningly, graphically obvious in the latter — is all but absent from Heyns’s film. While Marais’ addiction with morphine is an important thread in the plot, Heyns doesn’t show us how the poet managed to cope with a dwindling number of morphine pills, rationed out by Maria, and therefore the title character remains an enigma throughout, perhaps making him more iconic but certainly making him less accessible.
And yet, there are tiny, almost transient, hints that he has had pain in the past he would like to forget. Dawid Minnaar, who plays Marais, communicates this deep pain, or loss, by not answering certain questions posed by the curious Van Rooyens while remaining almost entirely transparent about everything else except the drugs. The psychology of the characters is mostly opaque, and we don’t learn until very late in the film what is going on inside the heads of Maria and Marais. While they eventually say what we have been thinking all along, Maria’s revelation in particular in poignant and is made by an actress who has to bare her soul and admit she has aged. It provides for a stunning moment that is perhaps one of the strongest in Cawood’s entire career.
This is the first film by director Katinka Heyns since Paljas, released in 1998. She has directed a number of television episodes since then, and unfortunately it would seem that the television style has taken over completely, as demonstrated by the almost exclusive use of medium shots and close-ups to tell the story. Never a particularly visual director, her stories have usually benefited from rich landscapes, from the forests of the southern Cape in Fiela se Kind to an enormous sand dune in Die Storie van Klara Viljee to the arrival of a circus in a small railway town in the heart of the arid Karoo region of South Africa in Paljas.
The Miracle Worker does little to draw attention to the vast landscape of the Bosveld that surrounds the farm, and it is equally unwilling to use the camera in a way that either focuses or captures our attention. The cinematography is boring and forgettable, with the one exception of a scene of hypnosis, in which a character dances with a broom, that is shot as a reverse Steadicam shot in a single take and stands out from the rest of the film, though it is far from being especially creative.
The film’s bookend structure with scenes in Pretoria in 1932 doesn’t work, not only because we know in the opening scenes that, whatever happens, Marais will survive his ordeal on the farm and eventually meet up with the young Jane again in the future, but because it forces a very unnecessarily descriptive voice-over onto the viewer throughout the film, because the story is not told in the present but as something that happened in the past.
However, the relationship between the 19-year-old Jane and the nearly 40-year-old Marais is beautifully portrayed as something Marais himself acknowledges as a confused struggle to deal with the past, and it is a struggle with which he knows he never copes particularly successfully. The emotional pieces of the puzzle start to fit together by the end of the film, though it is unfortunate that Adriaan is never really examined and comes across as a simpleton, a simplification rejected by his curious eyes.
Marais is charming and knowledgeable, and his interactions with baboons provide the viewer with a greater appreciation of these primates. However, despite the acting talent on display, the film never truly overcomes Heyns’ inability to tell a story with any kind of cinematic flair; going by the visuals, it sometimes seems like she is bored with the material. That is a terrible shame. As with the silence of the characters, her voice is cold and distant, but luckily the landscapes in the background, the ones she tries to keep out of the frame, make their way into the spirit of the film and end up enriching our experience.